Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Peeking under the hood of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive

"I used to make movies. Sexy stuff. Some critics called them European. I thought they were shit." - Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) in Drive
I can understand the overwhelming allure that Drive must have held for Nic Winding Refn. An existential crime movie set in L.A.? I’d be pretty damn excited too. But maybe he got a little bit too excited, going hog wild front loading the thing with references, nods or homages to a bunch of his favourite movies. I really, really liked Drive, but I would’ve enjoyed it a lot more if I didn’t keep getting distracted by the memories of the movies that it borrows so heavily from. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should probably stop reading now. If you have, then let’s pop the hood on this baby and see what makes it purr:
Taxi Driver - When he’s not behind the wheel of his hack, the simmering soft-spoken Travis Bickle struggles alternately with the impenetrable obstacles of emotions, human interaction and Albert Brooks. There’s only one thing for it - let’s splash the walls with blood! Interesting bit of trivia - Paul Schrader’s original script was set in Los Angeles, not New York. The decision was made to relocate the action as taxi cabs were far more common in New York than L.A. at the time. And whilst we’re on the subject of Schrader...

American Gigolo - The second installment of Schrader’s “night workers” quintet that began with Taxi Driver. (The last three films to date in this loose, unofficial series are Light Sleeper, Bringing Out The Dead and The Walker). The scene in Drive set in the strippers’ dressing room reminded me of the scene in the opening montage where the titular manwhore Julian Kaye (Richard Gere) visits his tailor. Lots of light, mirrors, reflections. Lots of red.
Drive’s 80s-inflected electro score also clearly alludes to Giogio Morodor’s synthpop soundtrack. But that’s not all. Check out the opening titles: Blondie’s Call Me soundtracks a man, a road, a car and a very familiar cursive font.

Thief - James Caan is a master jewel-thief with a very fixed structure to his life in Michael Mann’s little-seen crime thriller. Sound familiar? A lot of Drive’s plot machinations echo those of Thief, but I don’t want to get into further specifics without getting too spoilery. (Did I mention that it’s “little-seen”? Worth seeking out if you are a Thief virgin.) Actually, a lot of the visual style of early Michael Mann ripples through Drive - a little bit of Manhunter, a flash of Miami Vice (the show, not the shitty movie). Also: Tangerine Dream are on synth duty.
Irréversible - Not all of Drive’s touchstones are American. Gaspar Noé’s brutal reverse-chronology headfuck looms large, and not only because of the graphic scenes of visceral bone-cracking violence and human heads being obliterated in sprays of copious gore. There’s also the colour scheme. Here comes that red again.
Le Samouraï - Yet another precise, methodical perfectionist with a rigid personal code. Yet another professional whose life is unexpectedly complicated by his relationship with a woman. (This is starting to sound like Genre Fiction 101. Granted, sometimes a trope is just a trope. But they endure for a reason, and these are the mental flashes I kept getting whilst watching Drive. See also Léon, John Woo’s The Killer, etc, etc.)

Hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon) wears his trenchcoat like the Driver wears his scorpion jacket. Like a uniform. The similarities go deeper than that, though - there are certain narrative and visual cues from Jean-Pierre Melville’s minimalist masterpiece that crop up in Drive. For example, the moment when the Driver strides purposefully down the narrow corridor searching for Cook made me flash on this:
The Driver - This is the big one. If you asked me who my favourite director is, I would vacillate for a minute between John Carpenter and Walter Hill before plumping for the latter, and The Driver is one of the many reasons why - cinema pared down to it’s most basic raw components. Terse, tense, fast, relentless and perfect. Ryan O’Neal is the Driver. Bruce Dern is the Detective. Isabelle Adjani is the Player. And I can’t be remotely objective about it, so I’m not even going to try. Bruce Dern put it best: “You know what I'm gonna do? I'm gonna catch me the cowboy that's never been caught. Cowboy desperado.” Cue squealing rubber for 91 glorious minutes.
To Live and Die in L.A. - Say, that would be a pretty good alternate title for Drive, donchathink? Wang Chung wield the synths this time, and I’d argue that the car chases in William Friedkin’s movie easily surpass those from his earlier The French Connection. Robby Müller’s cinematography here is just gorgeous. Also, those colours again - lots of oranges (tangerines?) and reds.
Does this make it sound like a didn’t enjoy Drive? I hope not. I kinda loved it. I just kept getting pulled out of the film and into my memories. Also, I’d love a 1973 Chevy Malibu for Christmas. Failing that, I’ll settle for a satin scorpion jacket.


Dan said...

Haven't seen it yet, so I bailed after the first para, but I'll be back. I'm a BIG fan of the Pusher trilogy, planning to drag Emma out at some point to watch this. Interesting piece here though about why it struggled in the US: http://www.deadline.com/2011/09/autopsy-report-young-guys-didnt-drive/.

AKA said...

Interesting stuff - thanks for the link. Shame that it got beaten down at the US box office by the release of an 18-year old dinosaur movie, but I can't say I'm surprised. DRIVE is this year's SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD. A film that, at first glance, looks like a flop. But it will have legs, it will endure, people will continue to discover it & it will have a devoted core of fans that will keep coming back to it.

I'll be interested to hear what you think once you've seen it.

Paul D. Brazill said...

Excellent piece. I liked Drive very much. Not very fast but pretty damn furious in parts.

Whatley said...

Just linked you from my post man. Love the references. I haven't seen half of the films mentioned above.

Although, the last time I had an experience like yours, I saw The Matrix straight after Ghost in the Shell and felt exactly the same way.

Dan said...

I've just watched it. I've just read your post. Now I have to go watch a ton of other movies.